North·In Depth

The long road for 2 northern Quebec towns to break a dependence on diesel

In the works since 2012, the Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik Hybrid Power Plant is in the last phase of its environmental review.

Cree and Inuit villages in Quebec latest to work on more sustainable power source

Matthew Mukash, a former politician and the president of KWREC, points to a spot on a hilltop six kilometres outside of the Cree and Inuit communities of Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik. In the works since 2012, the wind farm project is now in the last phase of its environmental review. (KWREC)

It's a challenge many northern communities face: how to get a cleaner source of power and heat. 

Remote communities in Canada are still overwhelmingly reliant on diesel fuel for heating and electricity generation, according to a 2020 report by the Pembina Institute, and are responsible for the burning of more than 682 million litres of diesel each year. 

Three million litres of that is burned annually by the small, twin Cree and Inuit communities of Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik, in northern Quebec.

Now, with a joint renewable energy project in the last part of an environmental assessment, they are moving closer to significantly reducing their dependence on diesel. 

"Climate change affects the communities in many ways," said Matthew Mukash, who is president of the Kuujjuaraapik-Whapmagoostui Renewable Energy Corporation (KWREC) behind the project and who has been pushing the idea forward since 2011.

Climate change affects the communities in many ways.- Matthew Mukash, President of KWREC

The two communities are fly-in only, located about 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal at the mouth of the Great Whale River. The combined population is just over 1,700. 

"It's getting warmer. We don't have ice cold winters like we did, say 30 years ago. And it's bad for the hunters because ice conditions are very dangerous," said Mukash.

Mukash sees the hybrid power plant project as a way for his community to be part of the solution and inspire other northern communities to do the same.

If approved, the first phase of the project will see two wind turbines installed six kilometres outside of town on a hill with "great wind" and a hybrid power plant built to supply electricity to the rapidly growing communities. There are also plans to eventually add a biomass component to the power plant. 

Public consultation Wednesday

The two wind turbines would be installed on a hill six kilometres outside of the villages. Promoters also hope to add a biomass component to the power grid in the future. (KWREC)

Mukash and Anthony Ittoshat, vice-president of KWREC and mayor of Kuujjuuarapik, are set to appear before the Environmental and Social Impact Review Committee (COMEX) on Wednesday for a half-day of public consultations in-person at the Whapmagoostui gathering place and online.

This part of the COMEX hearing is the next step in the approval process and key to the project moving forward. 

"This [Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik Hybrid Power Plant project] is important for us since both Cree and Inuit cultures, and way of life, are land-based," said Ittoshat in a statement.

Long battle to protect Great Whale River

The wind farm and power plant project would also mark an important step forward in Mukash's lifelong fight to protect the Great Whale River.

In the early 1990s, Mukash was the chief of Whapmagoostui as former Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa pushed forward with plans to dam eight large rivers, including the Great Whale River. 

Dubbed James Bay II or the Great Whale Project and begun in 1986, the $12.6-billion project would have affected an ecosystem the size of France. 

The Cree and the Inuit of Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik launched court challenges and lobbying efforts in the U.S. to try to stop it. 

In 1990, Cree and Inuit from Northern Quebec travelled more than 2,000 kilometres over five weeks — by dogsled on the frozen bay, by road and by river — all the way to downtown Manhattan in a campaign against the proposed damming of the Great Whale River. (Cree Cultural Institute)

On Earth Day in 1990, 60 of them paddled into downtown Manhattan in a hybrid canoe-kayak dubbed the Odeyak to pressure American legislatures to cancel plans to buy the electricity generated by the Great Whale project. 

After years, their efforts worked and in 1992, then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, directed the New York Power Authority to cancel its contract with Hydro-Québec. 

"When we opposed the Great Whale project, we were always asked, 'Do you have a sustainable alternative to hydroelectric development?'" said Mukash, adding even back then the Cree and Inuit had dreams of a more sustainable source of electricity. 

Better relationship with Hydro-Québec

The hybrid power plant would replace a 70-year-old outdated diesel-only plant, originally built by the military and now operated by Hydro-Québec.

Anthony Ittoshat, left, vice-president of KWREC and mayor of Kuujjuuarapik, and Matthew Mukash, former chief of Whapmagoostui and former grand chief of the Cree Nation, are behind the hybrid power plant project. (submitted by Matthew Mukash)

"Right now, Hydro-Québec cannot even connect our arena to the grid because the powerhouse doesn't have the capacity," said Mukash. 

Hydro-Québec is supporting KWREC with technical expertise, upgrades to its facilities and the installation in 2021 of a 900-kilowatt battery storage system, according to Gabrielle Leblanc, spokesperson for the public utility. 

"The wind project developed by KWREC is part of Hydro-Québec's strategy to partially or totally convert its off-grid systems to cleaner energy," said Leblanc in an emailed response to a request for information.

Hydro Québec has also agreed to pay for and build a seven-kilometre, 25-kilovolt line to connect the wind farm to the thermal power station. 

Economic spinoffs

KWREC and Hydro Québec are still negotiating an agreement for the public utility to buy the power generated by the project, which Leblanc said is the utility's "preferred approach". 

"[This] makes it possible to involve host communities in the energy transition in addition to promoting development and economic spinoffs for them," said Leblanc.

Tugliq Energy is already into the third phase of its wind farm installation at the Raglan Mine in the far northern reaches of Quebec. The first turbine went in in 2014. The first and second turbines save Glencore, the owners of the nickel mine, approximately 4.4 million litres of diesel fuel annually. 

Tugliq Energy installed its first wind turbine at the Raglan mine near Salluit, in northern Quebec, in 2014. (Tugliq Energy)

Mukash says the wind farm is only the beginning of the economic benefits the partnership between the Cree and Inuit could bring for the two communities. 

"There's also job creation… and economic opportunities," said Mukash, adding they also have plans to add biomass energy components to the power plant. 

"It's a very, very important project not only for the present, but also for the future of the community," said Mukash. 

"Not only for wind projects, but also for other economic development projects in the region." 

Mukash said much of the funding is in place and if the project gets approval by COMEX, the Quebec government and the Quebec Energy Board, it could be operational by 2025.